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  • Writer's pictureAlly Landes

WHALE SHARK SPOTTING IN DJIBOUTI


Whale Sharks

Livaboards are definitely the way forward. What better way is there to enjoy a week of diving and snorkelling with a purpose – other than on a large, comfortable boat, on location, with good food, good company, pure pleasure… and some research.


THE RESEARCHERS

Eleven of us headed out to Djibouti in January in search of the seasonal whale shark aggregation with team leader, Marine Biologist – David Robinson, Ph.D. who is also the Chief Scientist with Sharkwatch Arabia.


Sharkwatch Arabia is a database that aims to collect sightings on whale sharks throughout the region. The initiative was started as a tool to collect information on shark abundance and their movements. The information collected is used in investigating the ecology of whale sharks in the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.


Also part of the research team, Jennifer V. Schmidt, Ph.D. – Director of Science & Research at The Shark Research Institute and Rima W. Jabado, Ph.D. – Founder and Lead Scientist of the Gulf Elasmo Project.


Jennifer is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She is a molecular biologist using genetic analysis to study the reproduction and development of a variety of organisms, from sharks to mice to humans. Dr. Schmidt’s laboratory has worked on whale sharks since 2001, using species-specific molecular markers to study their breeding and reproduction.


Rima is a fisheries scientist at the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi and also acts as the IUCN Regional Co-Chair for the Indian Ocean for the IUCN Shark Specialist Group. She works on sharks and rays across the Arabian region with a focus on fisheries and trade. The Gulf Elasmo Project is a non-profit initiative based in the United Arab Emirates. Its mission is to advance research, education and conservation of elasmobranchs (sharks, rays, guitarfish and sawfish) in the Arabian Seas region.


The Djibouti Whale Shark Expedition Team

DOLPHIN SERVICES

This trip consisted of a week aboard the Dolphin Services livaboard – the Deli – a Turkish Gulet run by Diving Instructor, Riccardo Marchetto and manned by their super Djiboutian crew members. The boat is fully equipped for divers with dive tank compressor and 2 skiffs to run the dives from. There are 6 ensuite rooms with bunk beds to comfortably accommodate 12 guests, a large deck with sun beds is situated out on the bow, there is a large galley below for all your digital camera charging needs and the breakfast/dining area is out on the stern where the Cook serves up some fantastic meals!


Dolphin Services is a PADI 5 Star Dive Centre in Eastern Africa and they offer the whale shark cruises that we have come especially to Djibouti for. Dives are done between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. Our adventures were based in the Ghoubet Strait where whale sharks migrate and claim their feeding grounds of plankton between the months of October and February.



THE SNORKELLING & THE DIVES

In all, I only did nine dives during our week amongst the whale shark snorkelling action, choosing to take on a more relaxed approach to the trip as this was a vacation after all and I wanted to get equal amounts of time doing everything. That included putting my feet up and chilling out on the Deli!


Diving in Djibouti won’t have you raving about the exotic marine life, because it’s not as lively an underwater world compared to its neighbour’s untouched Red Sea in Sudan, but the dive sites along the Ghoubet Strait are a little less known and it’s all about the adventure, the underwater architectural landscapes, topography, the stunning coral reefs and you guessed it, the whale sharks (Rhincodon typus).


The coral monuments are a big wow factor and they are plentiful, colourful and they are healthy. You can spend all your days snorkelling without having to get in to dive if you so wished. With water temperatures of 27˚C at depths, a rash vest was all that was needed at the surface amongst the hustle and bustle of all the reef fish. There are some amazing photo opportunities for photographers (both above and below water) with those colourful backdrops, and some fun to be had with split levels. We had the most perfect clear blue skies throughout and the sunsets were a show stopper themselves. Getting comfortable on the boat in the early evenings ready to watch the sunset is a must.


The main purpose of our trip was of course to see and get in the water with the world’s largest fish, the whale shark! Djibouti is the perfect location to come face to face with them during their migrational period. Getting in to swim with these gigantic fish is an experience one is not soon to forget. They are one of the world’s coolest and very sadly now, officially Endangered globally.



SNORKELLING: RAS CORALI

★★★★★


Our first day was all about snorkelling with whale sharks and it was a great day for shark spotting. We must have seen 6 or 7 individuals as they fed relaxingly amongst us snorkellers with our cameras pointed directly at them. On a few entries, we had 2 and 3 whale sharks feeding in the same vicinity which is quite rare, but the plankton was abundant this day and the water, calm. This really triggered off a great start to the action we had come to seek. Some of the team were lucky to witness some vertical feeding.


The aim of those with cameras was to get identification photographs of the sharks’ spot patterns on both right and left flanks as they are unique to each individual, very much like a fingerprint is to humans, and estimate the whale shark’s length. If it was also possible, do a freedive and get a photograph of the sex of the animal. If these are yearly recurring sharks to the area, the information helps the researchers learn about their growth rates and behaviour, and know what these animals do over their life span.


Jennifer took water samples over different days of when sharks were feeding and when they weren’t in order to get a better understanding of what keeps these filter feeders in the area.


Whale Shark
Whale Shark
Whale Shark
Whale Shark
Whale Shark
Whale Shark

Dive 1: DE BUTRA

★★★

Time In: 9:09

Depth: 27.8m

Temp: 27˚C

Total Time: 44 mins

  • Hawksbill Turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata)

  • Cownose Rays (Rhinoptera javanica)

  • Napoleon Wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus)

  • Bluestripe Snapper (Lutjanus kasmira)

  • Arabian Angelfish (Pomacanthus asfur)

  • Yellowfin Hind (Cephalopholis hemistiktos)

This was a devastating day for the Critically Endangered Hawksbill Turtles as we came across three dead ones in a fishermen’s net. A cheerier sight was from the very large school of Cownose Rays, all for a very short moment as they passed us by. This dive site constituted more rock than coral and the fish population was sparse. The Napoleons scarpered if you tried to get close, but we noticed that they are quite common on the dive sites and if they are there, you’ll see more than just the one.


Once back on the Deli, your breakfast awaits and plans are made for the rest of the day. We decided to dedicate it to snorkelling with the whale sharks at Ras Corali. The waters were again rich with plankton enticing sharks in large numbers, more than one shark at a time on a couple of entries. One individual we saw on more than one occasion was easy to identify from the other sharks as he had a white marking on his left pectoral fin. It was also becoming more apparent that most of these young sharks were all male.


It can get very tiring and some level of fitness is required to keep up as you constantly roll in backwards from the skiff to follow a shark, and then haul yourself back into the skiff once you have fallen behind to go and find another. Within minutes, you find one and you start the process all over again. You definitely get a workout from it and an overall satisfaction like no other.


Cownose Rays

Dive 2: ISLE DE BUTRA

★★★★

Time In: 9:23

Depth: 33.4m

Temp: 27˚C

Total Time: 46 mins

  • Bluespotted Ribbontail Rays (Taeniura lymma)

  • Bluestripe Snapper (Lutjanus kasmira)

  • Yellowfin Hind (Cephalopholis hemistiktos)

  • Arabian Angelfish (Pomacanthus asfur)

  • Hooded Butterflyfish (Chaetodon larvatus)

  • Redcoat Squirrelfish (Sargocentrum rubrum)

  • Summan Grouper (Epinephelus summana)

  • Coral Grouper (Cephalopholis miniata)

  • Yellowtip Soldierfish (Myripristis xanthacra)

  • Red Sea Raccoon Butterflyfish (Chaetodon fasciatus)

  • Tailfin Batfish (Platax teira)

  • Sergeant Major (Abudefduf vaigiensis)

  • Moon Wrasse (Thalassoma lunare)

  • Bluecheek Butterflyfish (Chaetodon semilarvatus)

  • Masked Puffer (Arothron diadematus)

  • Blue-Green Chromis (Chromis viridis)

The coral reef near the surface of this dive is simply stunning. You could just snorkel here with all the colour and life present at 5m. Some of the table corals are huge and in perfect condition. We had expected to see lots of moray eels lurking out of holes, but we surprisingly didn’t see any.


Overall, this is a really nice site to dive. The light plays beautifully with the corals and all the elegant fish making it a great location for photographers. The juvenile Tailfin Batfish made good subjects.


Tailfin Batfish
Bluecheek Butterflyfish

Dive 3: LA PASSE

★★★

Time In: 13:23

Depth: 37.4m

Temp: 27˚C

Total Time: 22 mins

  • Giant Grouper (Epinephelus lanceolatus)

  • Sailfish (Istiophorus)

  • Eagle Ray (Myliobatidae)

This has to be an incredibly well timed dive and one for experienced divers only due to the unpredictable force of the currents. It is known for its down currents and by what we’ve been told, has posed threat to several others before. This dive has the potential to show some very unique and very large marine life, which is why it creates such a fascination. There is only a half hour window in which to descend and hold onto the rocks to watch for passing fish before letting go, and safely drifting back up to the surface.


You really do have to keep your eyes open or whatever is down there, will be quick to miss.


We wanted to experiment with this dive site and created a project in the hope to capture the different species of marine life that may travel through La Passe. Equipped with 2 GoPros, zip tied to a 50m rope – to be released down to 40m – with a 30kg weight tied to the end in the hope it would hold the line down in the current for the purpose of filming stability.


Aboard one of the skiffs, we headed over into the turbulent waters of La Passe and hauled our experiment overboard for 20 minutes. Despite the weight, the line was brought up mid water by the strengths of the currents heading in all directions, and looking back through the footage, we caught nothing on film much to our disappointment.


Having seen the motion and strengths of the water from the surface, you can understand how dangerous this dive can be for divers. Although our experiment didn’t have the outcome we had hoped for, we are convinced with more time (which we didn’t have) and more thought, we could have made it a success and satisfied our curiosity.


We spent the rest of the afternoon back in with the whale sharks, the numbers still high and revving, but with a lot less feeding action, requiring more swimming to keep up with them.


Hooded Butterflyfish

Dive 4: THE CRACK

★★★★

Time In: 8:37

Depth: 40.1m

Temp: 27˚C

Total Time: 40 mins

  • Masked Puffer (Arothron diadematus)

  • Sergeant Major (Abudefduf vaigiensis)

  • Hooded Butterflyfish (Chaetodon larvatus)

  • Red Sea Bannerfish (Heniochus intermedius)

  • Moon Wrasse (Thalassoma lunare)

  • Blackspot Snapper (Lutjanus ehrenbergii)

  • Gulf Parrotfish (Scarus persicus)

This dive will have you bragging to everyone that you’ve experienced diving between two continents! The walls of this underwater crack (which can also be seen on land up to the Rift Valley) are two tectonic plates that continuously move apart, separating Africa and Asia. You must be fully confident in your buoyancy here as you need to make a few ascents and descents in this dive as this crack extends itself to some very narrow canyons and caves amongst dark volcanic boulders. It’s a good fun dive and you just need to make sure you don’t get yourself stuck in the passages.


The water was full of tiny particles when we came up to the coral reef to do our safety stop, (I got the occasional sting) and it turned out the corals were actually spawning. It was quite an exciting event to witness.


The Deli was moored up alongside a gorgeous coral reef that was worth snorkelling, so we had our breakfast overlooking the picturesque bay and plunged in. The different earth tone colours with the contrasts of the blues, greens and purples were striking amongst the families of brain, stony, table and staghorn corals. This is a beautiful spot!


The Crack

Dive 5: RED VIRGIN

★★★★

Time In: 15:19

Depth: 27.9m

Temp: 27˚C

Total Time: 46 mins

  • Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata)

  • Arabian Angelfish (Pomacanthus asfur)

  • Sergeant Major (Abudefduf vaigiensis)

  • Blue-Green Chromis (Chromis viridis)

  • Blackspot Snapper (Lutjanus ehrenbergii)

  • Gulf Parrotfish (Scarus persicus)

  • Sohal Surgeonfish (Acanthurus sohal)

  • Twoband Anemonefish (Amphiprion bicinctus)

The topside of this dive site is called the Red Virgin because a figurine actually appears to be carved into the red rock face looking out over the water.


The topography of this dive site is very unique with its deep wall and pillars of red rock, making it both eerie and majestic. You end up heading over into a shallower dive for your safety stop, surrounded by a healthy and colourful coral reef where our last 20 minutes were spent with a juvenile Hawksbill who allowed us to tag along with her up until we surfaced.


Hawksbill Turtle

Dive 6: LE SEC AUX BOUTRES PASS PROMONTORY

★★★

Time In: 15:14

Depth: 25.2m

Temp: 26˚C

Total Time: 42 mins

  • Tailfin Batfish (Platax teira)

  • Whitebar Surgeonfish (Acanthurus leucopareius)

  • Coral Grouper (Cephalopholis miniata)

  • Yellowbar Angelfish (Pomacanthus maculosus)

  • Arabian Angelfish (Pomacanthus asfur)

  • Red Sea Bannerfish (Heniochus intermedius)

  • Redtooth Triggerfish (Odonus niger)

  • Blue & Gold Fusilier (Caesio caerulaurea)

  • Yellowfin Hind (Cephalopholis hemistiktos)

A very simple little dive site, but enjoyable. Nothing special was seen here and it was the only dive where we felt the chill of thermoclines and the temperature dropped by one degree.


Arabian Butterflyfish

Dive 7: THE DOME

★★★★

Time In: 9:03

Depth: 26.1m

Temp: 27˚C

Total Time: 44 mins

  • Bowmouth Guitarfish (Rhina ancylostoma)

  • Bluespotted Ribbontail Rays (Taeniura lymma)

  • Gulf Parrotfish (Scarus persicus)

  • Twoband Anemonefish (Amphiprion bicinctus)

  • Arabian Angelfish (Pomacanthus asfur)

  • Summan Grouper (Epinephelus summana)

This was an amazing dive, for the pure joy of seeing my first ever Bowmouth Guitarfish. It was actually everyone’s first time, so it was a pretty special day! There were 5 in total in which I saw 3. These rays are so much bigger in person than I had imagined.


This ray really does look like a shark, making it difficult to believe it’s not! It’s almost as though these animals heads are crowned with scattered rows of knobbly jewels and dressed in spotty pajamas. They are majestic and they are huge and quite possibly now my favourite ray!


After breakfast, we went off to do some more whale sharking but our skiff spotted just the one. The water’s surface was choppy and this could have played a part in the sharks decline in numbers this day which was a shame as it was my last shark snorkel. But I have all the other days recorded on video to remember and know that they’ll be back as soon as the conditions are right for them. This is after all their home for the duration of the season.


Bowmouth Guitarfish

Dive 8: TURTLE POINT

★★★

Time In: 17:12

Depth: 18.4m

Temp: 27˚C

Total Time: 46 mins

  • Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas)

  • Bluespotted Ribbontail Rays (Taeniura lymma)

  • Bluespotted Stingray (Neotrygon caeruleopunctata)

  • Bluestripe Snapper (Lutjanus kasmira)

  • Blackspot Snapper (Lutjanus ehrenbergii)

  • Moon Wrasse (Thalassoma lunare)

  • Arabian Angelfish (Pomacanthus asfur)

  • Yellowbar Angelfish (Pomacanthus maculosus)

  • Whitebar Surgeonfish (Acanthurus leucopareius)

  • Sohal Surgeonfish (Acanthurus sohal)

  • Gulf Parrotfish (Scarus persicus)

  • Redtooth Triggerfish (Odonus niger)

  • Red Sea Bannerfish (Heniochus intermedius)

  • Sergeant Major (Abudefduf vaigiensis)

  • Coral Grouper (Cephalopholis miniata)

  • Common Humbug (Dascyllus aruanus)

  • Bluecheek Butterflyfish (Chaetodon semilarvatus)

This is a nice and easy dive site, known for its Hawksbill and Green turtle sightings, but I missed the 3 Greens that were spotted.


Green Turtle

Dive 9: THE DOME

★★★★

Time In: 8:40

Depth: 23m

Temp: 27˚C

Total Time: 42 mins

  • Bowmouth Guitarfish (Rhina ancylostoma)

  • Bluespotted Ribbontail Rays (Taeniura lymma)

  • Twoband Anemonefish (Amphiprion bicinctus)

  • Red Sea Bannerfish (Heniochus intermedius)

We requested to do this dive site again to see the Bowmouth Guitarfish one last time. It’s an incredibly simple dive site to navigate and there really is nothing more to see here, but the anticipation of seeing this species makes this dive site all that more special and it’s a good dive to end the adventure.


Twoband Anemonefish

WHALE SHARKS

The whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is a slow moving filter feeding shark and the largest known fish species.


The sharks can be seen in Djibouti all year round, but they are seen in larger numbers from mid October to February as plankton ‘blooms’ develop in the enclosed bay called the Goubet al Kharab (the Devil’s Cauldron) in the Gulf of Tadjoura. Research has recognised the particular importance of the bay in the development of juvenile whale sharks, which stay within the safe confines of Djibouti’s coastline.


SIZE

Whale sharks can grow up to 14m long, weighing up to 15 tons. The average size is 7.6m long. It is the largest fish in the world and females are larger than males (like most sharks).


TEETH

Whale sharks have about 3,000 very tiny teeth but they are of little use. Whale sharks are filter feeders who sieve their tiny food through their large gills.


DIET

They have a huge mouth which can be as big as 1.4m wide. There are five sets of filtering pads in their mouths and the pads filter the plankton out of the water, and then the filtered water passes out through the gill slits where oxygen is extracted through the gill filaments.


Their prey includes plankton, krill, small fish, and squid. The shark can process over 6,000 litres of water per hour.


HABITAT

The whale shark inhabits all tropical and warm-temperate seas. The fish is primarily pelagic, living in the open sea but not in the greater depths of the ocean, although it is known to occasionally dive to depths of as much as 1,800 metres.


SWIMMING

Whale sharks are slow swimmers, with speeds of no more than 5kph. They swim by moving their entire bodies from side to side (not just their tails, like some other sharks do).


REPRODUCTION

Recently, research found pregnant females containing hundreds of pups, making whale sharks viviparous, giving birth to live young. Newborns are over 60cm long. Whale sharks are sexually mature at 30 years old which is when they begin to mate and reproduce.


LIFE SPAN

It has been estimated that whale sharks can live up to 100-150 years of age.


All the sharks we came across were juvenile, between 3-6 metres and they all seemed to be male. In order to better understand the purpose of this trip, I’ve asked David and Jennifer to explain in their own words, what it is they contribute to science with their research on the whale sharks, and Rima on her research on the other elasmobranchs we encountered.


THE RESEARCH

David Robinson, Ph.D.

For a few years now I have been supporting the research trips made by the team at the Marine Conservation Society Seychelles (MCSS). The team led by Dr David Rowat have been collecting demographic and individual identification data on the whale sharks in Djibouti to build up a picture of occurrence and to keep an eye on the population.


The data we collected on our trip was focused on identification of individuals and the size and sex of the animals we encountered, this was sent to the MCSS team for analysis and will hopefully help to support their data collection.


Jennifer V. Schmidt, Ph.D.

I am a geneticist by training, not a marine biologist, so I bring a different perspective to shark research other than some of my colleagues. I spent years researching human diseases, but was also interested in conservation genetics, using genetic tools to study wild populations.


About 15 years ago I partnered with the Shark Research Institute where I now work as the Director of Science & Research, to initiate a large genetic study of whale sharks. While conventional animal monitoring can answer many questions about shark biology, particularly for long-lived animals like the whale shark, it can be difficult to understand their behaviours over a lifetime. Genetics can capture movements throughout the life of an animal by recording where and with whom that animal breeds. My work analyses genetic markers in whale sharks around the world, including Djibouti, and compares how similar the markers in each group are. Shark populations that are genetically very similar must have a history of interacting over time, through migration and interbreeding, while populations that are more different have fewer interactions. We find that whale sharks from the Pacific and Indian Oceans are genetically indistinguishable – these animals migrate and interbreed often enough that their markers do not vary.


Conventional tagging has not been able to demonstrate these movements, but genetics tells us that they occur. Atlantic Ocean animals we find to be somewhat different from the Pacific-Indian sharks – these animals interact less often. This data is important because it helps determine the best way to conserve whale sharks. While many countries have laws that protect whale sharks, other countries do not. The genetic similarity in particular between Pacific and Indian Ocean sharks says that national regulations are not enough to protect this species, whale shark conservation requires international protocols.


Jennifer's Water Samples

Rima Jabado, Ph.D.

Around the world, many populations of sharks and rays have declined because of human induced pressures including overfishing as well as habitat destruction and degradation. Except for a few well known areas, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find ‘hot spots’ where live sharks or rays can be seen and enjoyed while diving. My work is mostly in fisheries and unfortunately it means that I mostly encounter dead sharks and rays. Because of that, and my complete fascination with them, when I travel to diving destinations, I am always on the quest to find live sharks and rays so I can enjoy their beauty and grace underwater. So our trip to Djibouti was a very pleasant surprise and definitely did not disappoint. We expected and hoped we would see whale sharks but we were also lucky enough to see various species of rays (including over 50 schooling cownose rays while diving). Our encounters with several bowmouth guitarfish two days in a row were amazing and quite unique. Unfortunately, we did not see any other species of sharks but having the option of going ‘whale sharking’ at any time of the day in great visibility was an exceptional experience. This allowed us to collect data on these gentle giants that will help whale shark scientists identify the individuals occurring in Djibouti waters and hopefully better understand their behaviour in the region.


BACK TO DRY LAND

That ends our livaboard adventures. You spend the rest of the time rinsing off your dive equipment and cameras, pack up the rest of your belongings and enjoy the last lunch aboard the Deli before heading back to Djibouti Port for around 3pm.


We set to stay overnight at the Sheraton Djibouti Hotel as some of our flights were not until the following day and we did not have to be at the airport until 11pm. This enabled us to get used to our land legs again, go out for an evening meal together before splitting to go off onto our separate ventures, and get a good night’s sleep in a real bed.


We did a quick trip into the city centre in the afternoon to visit the market and one major thing to point out, is that photography is frowned upon. Djiboutian’s just don’t like it and even if you ask for their permission to take their photo, they will say no (including the photography of their animals) with the exception of only a few, but mainly the younger generation. You will get a few individuals latch on to your group during your walk in the expectation that you will pay them as your city guide. They can be quite difficult to fend off, but it is advised to persist or you may experience unpleasantries.


In the morning, after breakfast, 3 set off to do some bird watching and catch a glimpse of the endangered Djibouti Francolin in the Djibouti mountains, 2 hired a 4WD to go off on a 3 day camping trip to discover a bit more of Djibouti, and the rest of us set out on a day’s excursion to Lac Assal.



LAC ASSAL

As is customary when in Djibouti – and you’ve not done it before – you can spend the last day visiting Lac Assal with your group to complete your surface interval before the flight home. Dolphin Services can arrange this for you.


Lac Assal is a crater lake located 120km west of Djibouti city in the central-western part. It is a saline lake which lies 155m below sea level, making it the lowest point on land in Africa and the third-lowest point on Earth after the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. It is the world’s largest salt reserve and due to its high evaporation rate, the salinity of its waters is 10 times that of the sea, making it the saltiest in the world after the Don Juan Pond. It’s worth a visit.



FOR MORE INFORMATION:


PLANNING YOUR TRIP AND ACCOMMODATION:

Dolphin Services

PADI Five Star Dive Centre S-3736

Haramous (opposite to Pizzaiolo)

B.P. 4476, Djibouti

Mobile: +(253) 7701 5446 (Sonja)

Mobile: +(253) 7710 3395

Office: +(253) 2134 7807

Facebook: Dolphin Excursions Djibouti


THINGS TO BRING

For djibouti Airport arrival:

  • Print out a copy of invitation letter.

  • Have exactly $90 for the visa on arrival.

  • A pen.

  • Your UAE ID Card if a resident.

  • Flight boarding card(s).

Currency to have with you:

Euros or American US Dollars

Exchange rates:

  • $1 USD = DJF 175-179

  • €1 = DJF 190-200

  • You can exchange money either at the Sheraton or at the exchange shop at the Menelik square.

Credit Cards:

  • Credit cards are not widely accepted.

  • You can pay with a credit card at the Sheraton and Kempinski Hotels and the Casino supermarket.

  • Mainly Visa card is accepted (not Mastercard)

ATMs:

  • There is an ATM at the airport, at the Sheraton and Kempinski Hotels and in the city centre.

All Underwater Photography by Simone Caprodossi

Drone Shot by Simon J Pierce



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